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Uma Majmudar: Ph.D. at 60!

By: Uma Majmudar Email By: Uma Majmudar
September 2010
Uma Majmudar: Ph.D. at 60! There could be many reasons for doing a Ph.D.; for me, however, there was only one—an irrepressible inner urge, a recurrent prompting of my heart to fulfill my life’s dream, even if it meant starting this journey at the ripe middle age of fifty.

I belong to that generation of women who were raised to be traditional and yet, who were anything but traditional in their dreams and intellectual pursuits. While performing my domestic duties in keeping with the time, place, and social norms of my generation, I continued slowly but steadily onto my own scholarly path—of reading, researching and writing—which gradually paved the way to do my Ph. D. and finally earn a doctorate against so many odds.

For a girl raised by an erudite father among heavyweight books on western and eastern philosophy, classical English, and Sanskrit literature, reading, to me, was always serious business and in-depth learning, the biggest joy. It was this intense passion for books and a zest for learning that led me to doing a master’s in English and teaching at a college in India prior to my marriage—after which, my husband and I emigrated to America in 1967 with a one-year-old baby in tow. Because of our then temporary visa status, I could not work for five years, nor apply for post-graduate studies in any American university. Life interrupted my dream, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because I strongly believe in staying home to raise my children myself.   

In those early days in America, despite feeling lonely and cut off from the world, without a car and without family or friends in an alien country, I ventured still to take evening classes to meet people and to learn the American ways of speaking and writing. Using public transportation, I began to take accredited courses in public speaking, creative writing, typing, journalism, and computer science—all of which opened up a whole new vista of freelance writing while staying home. No words could ever describe the thrill of seeing my first by-lines in print! Unquestionably, all these preliminary preparations helped me get accepted as a Ph. D. candidate in the Institute of Liberal Arts (ILA) of Emory University in Atlanta in 1986.   

By then, however, I had already turned 50. With advancing age and receding energy, I struggled hard for ten years, taking rigorous courses in theology, psychology, philosophy and religion, writing research papers, making presentations, and finally defending my thesis before a panel of three Ph.D. advisors. Though the road was rather long, the climb steep, and the work back-breaking, the entire process of learning was incredibly invigorating, even spiritually exhilarating—that is—until toward the end. Just seven months short of my graduation in May 1996, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Totally dumbfounded, all I could ask my doctor was: “Would I be able to make it to my graduation in May?” The doctor assured me that since my disease was still in its earliest stage, there was hope and though he would start the treatment right away, he’d like to wait until my graduation and depending on how I responded, would decide the next step.   

I had hardly come to terms with my situation when I got news that was even more devastating—two of my three advisors were also seriously ill. One had suffered a paralyzing stroke, and the other was diagnosed with leukemia. Dark clouds of gloom gathered all around me. But I refused to let my spirit down. Interpreting this as the ultimate test of my endurance, I summoned up all the powers within me and began to pray earnestly for some Divine intervention. Incredibly, the skies cleared up and I saw the Light shining through! Two other professors replaced the ones who had become ill, and they also approved and signed my doctorate dissertation just in time.

Finally, that long-awaited Graduation Day dawned on May 12, 1996. I still feel the balmy air touch my skin, as if trying to cool down the super fast beating of my heart! This was the crowning moment I’d worked for, the moment that was to fulfill all my educational dreams. Wearing my Ph.D. crown and gown, as I paraded elegantly on the campus grounds before a huge cheering crowd of family, friends, mentors and well wishers, I felt as if I was floating in the air, waving my certificate, and shouting with glee: “If I could do it, you can too—at any age—if you have a sustained passion for learning, persistence, perseverance, and lots of patience!”

[Dr. Uma Majmudar’s educational journey continues. After her Ph.D. in 1996, she wrote her first book, “Gandhi’s Pilgrimage Of Faith: From Darkness To Light,” published by SUNY Press in 2005. As an Adjunct Professor in Emory University’s Department of Religion, she taught a course on “Vedanta East and West.” Currently she is researching for her next book on the Bhagavad Gita while also teaching at the Vedanta Center of Atlanta.]

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